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Just another interrogation: My encounter with the Shin Bet

For one Palestinian citizen of Israel, interrogations by the Shin Bet are a routine which include delays and harassment for no apparent reason.

By Awad Abdel Fattah

Ben Gurion Airport. Palestinian citizens of Israel regularly face interrogations upon their arrival in Israel. (joshuapiano/CC BY 2.0)

I was fortunate this week. I had a quick and easy crossing from Jordan back into Israel. No delays, no questions, no invasive body searches and no lengthy rummaging through my luggage. The border guard sitting next to the computer took my passport, opened it and looked at the screen, presumably to check for any special alert. Unlike previous occasions, she didn’t leave her seat and disappear into another room to take instructions on what to do next. She simply handed back the passport, and I walked outside to my car.

For years, on almost every occasion, I have been routinely delayed and harassed for no apparent reason upon my return to Israel, whether following a speaking engagement or a personal trip, which I do with increasing infrequency given my treatment by these officials.

A month ago I went through the humiliating routine on my return from Amman. I find it impossible to let the procedure pass without responding. Possibly, it was this previous, heated exchange that suspended, if only briefly, my expected round of humiliation this week.

On that earlier occasion, as so often before, I ended up in an argument with two “security” men from the Shin Bet. (Similar confrontations occur when I arrive at or leave from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport.) After an hour of unnecessary delays, the two asked me to put my bag on a raised bench. One of them opened it and roughly began searching the contents: some clothes and two books.

I protested angrily: “Why don’t you do that more gently?”

He answered with a feigned calm: “You must accept everything that happens here in a nice way.”

I responded: “How can I deal with racist treatment and humiliation in a nice way?”

The other man, annoyed by the comment, interrupted loudly: “Tell me, why do you hate us?”

Next, the confrontation developed into a back-and-forth of accusations, with a subtext of politics.

I answered: “Who hates whom, me or you?”

He said: “I read your writings and you hate us.”

I replied: “I hate your racism, and the humiliating way you treat me and my people.”

Angrily, he declared: “Go to the Arab countries and you will see what will happen to you there.”

This statement, regularly uttered by Israeli Jews, irritated me. He wanted to erase the differences between our situation as Palestinians in Israel and that of other “Arabs” in Arab countries as a way to justify his country’s racist polices, and to silence us. The implication of his comparison was that we are not the indigenuous people of Palestine, and that Israel is doing us a favor by “allowing” us to express our opinions and vote.

That requires ignoring Israel’s long history of political oppression. I myself was first summoned for interrogation when I was 14 years old, after I wore a T-shirt with black lettering lamenting the death of the then most popular Arab leader, Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser. The persecution continued, both against myself and my family, because we, like many others, voiced our opposition to the Israeli regime and identified with the struggle of our Palestinian people against the policy of Israelization (destroying our national identity) and Judaization (confiscating on a mass scale the lands of Palestinians who are citizens of the state).

The 1980s witnessed the harshest campaign against the secular democratic political movement I was by then a senior member of  Abnaa al-Balad, or Sons of the Village – and against me and my family. Once, in 1983, I was marched by three Shin Bet officers out of the newspaper office where I worked and beaten brutally in a police van. Later in the police headquarters, I was issued with an administrative order signed by the public security minister, banning me from entering the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Back to our exchange. I said: “It is you who should go to wherever you came from. You are a European colonizer, you came here as an invader.”

His face grew red with indignation. “My grandfather was born here and he didn’t come from Europe.”

“Well, if your grandfather was here before the invasion, so he must be a Palestinian like me, and like thousands of Palestinian Jews who were here all the time and lived peacefully with other Palestinians. But if he and his children participated in colonizing my country and killing my people, and continue to carry arms, then as far as I am concerned they are enemies – enemies of me, of justice and of human values.”

The other security man intervened: “Wouldn’t you treat me the same way if our roles were reversed?”

I said: “No, I wouldn’t.”

He asked why.

“Because I am a human being.”

Irritated, he asked: “Am I not a human being?”

“No, you are not.”

He became angry: “Are you against me personally?”

I said: “No, I am not against you as a person, or as a Jew. For me, all peoples of the world are equal. But I am against you because you are racist, and you represent a colonial and racist regime which has deformed you and most of your society.”

He looked down at the bag, seemingly unsure what to do next.

I continued: “Do you know what my party is struggling for?”

“No,” he replied, dismissively.

But I insisted on explaining: “We are struggling not only to liberate the Palestinian people from the occupation and from Israel’s racist apartheid regime, but also to liberate you from the illness of racism, so you can stop inflicting harm on me and on millions of people who are the natives of this country. And then we can live together equally and peacefully.”

He shifted uncomfortably to the left and right, while the other man returned to searching my bag, thrusting his hand deep inside.

He found a booklet, and asked what it was about.

I said: “I wrote this recently to explain how I and others think the Arab Palestinians and the Israeli Jews should live together under one democratic regime in a single state. It is a humanistic and democratic alternative to your occupation, colonization and apartheid. By the way, you can take it as a present.”

He said: “No thanks. I read everything you write, and your opinions are extremist and hostile to us.”

I said: “You are not willing to listen to our viewpoint. You are racist.”

He answered: “I am not racist. I am leftist.”

I asked skeptically: “Can you tell me what you mean by left? You are Zionist left. The left, as I know it, is against racism and is identified with universal values of equality between all human beings and with social justice. The Zionist left doesn’t uphold those values.”

We both fell silent for a moment. But I started up again as he returned to searching my bag. “Look, you talk to me always in Hebrew. You don’t know Arabic. Arabic is not taught in Israeli schools, although 20 percent of the state’s citizens are Arabs. Not only that, but although you are living in the heart of the Arab world you don’t want to be a part of the region. You insist on remaining a part of the West.”

He said: “I know Arabic. I matriculated in Arabic.”

I said: “This is further evidence that you are racist and a colonizer.”

“How so?”

I answered: “We know that whoever wants to be employed by the Shin Bet must know Arabic well. What motivated you to learn Arabic was the need to oppress me, to know how to keep controlling me. It is not because you and your colleagues desire to know about Arab civilization, or to communicate with it or with the Arab people and to advance real coexistence.”

Finally, he stopped the search. It looked as though he had run out of things to say. I know very well the conflicted feelings of the Zionist left. Unlike the right and the far-right, who are clear in their views about the rights of the Palestinians, the Zionist left are trapped by their desire for democracy and their adherence to a Jewish state and the resulting apartheid regime.

As he allowed me to leave, he gave me a look whose meaning I could not fathom.

Awad Abdel Fattah is the secretary-general of the National Democratic Assembly party in Israel, also known as Balad, which has three elected Knesset members.

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    1. rsgengland

      “Go to Arab countries and you will see what will happen to you there”.
      Possibly the question should be, “How do you think a Jew would be treated in a similar situation in an Arab country”.
      The answer would of coarse be totally hypothetical, as the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa were ‘Ethnically Cleansed’ by the Arabs/Muslims in the wave of racist Antisemitism that swept the area after 1948.
      A million+ Jews lived there before 1948, and now there are just a few thousand.
      Most of those Jews were not Zionists.
      If they had been they would have been able to dispose of their property and assets in an orderly way, before immigrating to Israel.
      As it was , they arrived in Israel penniless and destitute, after having everything confiscated by those Arab/Muslim regimes.

      Reply to Comment
      • Philos

        I know many Moroccans and Iraqis who would punch you in the face for your denigration of their and their parents/grandparents Zionism. Don’t get me wrong, they’d punch me too but for different reasons. Anyway, they’d all call you a racist and most Israelis would agree. Are not the feelings of Jews of any concern to you hasbarists? Ah no, I forgot about your exploitation of holocaust survivors. Except those that vehemently oppose Zionism. Then, as I’ve read in that vile blog The Times of Israel, they aren’t really survivors.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          Are you arguing then that Jews left the Arab world due to Zionist urges and not out of the continuously worsening conditions imposed on them throughout the Arab world? I presume the formerly Algerian and Moroccan Jews in France and the formerly Syrian Jews in Brooklyn and the formerly Iraqi Jews in Britain are not going to punch him in the face for a denigration of their Zionism. What is common to them and to their former compatriots that are now in Israel is that they were ethnically cleansed from the Arab world and left destitute.

          Reply to Comment
      • Philos

        More to the point, even if you’re right; what the hell does that have to do with the authors experience? Are you saying he should suffer because of the misdeeds of Arab governments? No – you don’t know what you’re saying. You’re just a retarded hasbara troll he just mindless regurgitates the same intellectual vomit all over the Internet. Of all your cognitive dissonances the only aspect of your thinking that is not dissonant is your racism, bigotry and prejudice.

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        • Zephon

          You deserve a good ass kicking for your utter assumption on us Jews of the Middle East – Zionist or not. My family and extended family are Iraqi and Irani Jews still very much living in Iraq and Iran to this very day – for thousands of years. There are 57 members of my own family living today in Dubai and Qatar – openly Jews. Two are still living in Lebanon, we never went anywhere even in the 80’s we all stayed right where we were. We never bought into the fear tactics like many had so foolishly.

          Most Jews in Arab countries resent the attitudes Israelis give off primarily for the same ignorance you possess about us. As if we don’t exists anymore and if we do we live like we’re living through the Spanish inquisition, it’s utterly moronic and ridiculous.

          Are there less of us? Hell yes. But that wasn’t because of the christian or Muslim Arabs – but because of Zionism, Israels invasions, and warfare by proxy. ( Bibi was the loudest supporter of the 2001 Iraq war. ) It drove a wedge into an already fractious and divided tribal heritage and has only spewed the sort of regurgitated nonsense you spewed about Arab Jews and our histories to this very day. As a result we have lost a part of ourselves that can never be found again – much to Israels joy.

          Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            Hahaha. You have gone a little far my friend in making your case. Tell me something.. These 57 Jewish relatives of yours in Qatar and Dubai.. If they are openly Jewish then I presume they pray. What is the address of the synagogue they pray at? Because according to all the information available to me there isn’t one in either Qatar or Dubai. Or maybe it is so secret that you can’t tell me, but if that is the case, then why should it be secret if there are really no issues for Jews living in those countries?

            The argument you make in blaming Israel for the departure of 99%+ of the Jews from the Arab world is interesting. What kind of guilt by association do you justify in driving the Jews out from Libya, Iraq, Yemen, Algeria, and other places which have never even seen an Israeli soldier? If the Muslims and Christian Arabs were so tolerant and accepting why would they create an environment which caused 99%+ of the Jews to leave or be forced out and for the governments of their countries to seize most and in some cases all of the property of the Jews?

            Reply to Comment
      • Leen

        Oh please. One of my friend’s mom is Jewish Bahraini and she lives in Lebanon (she used to live in Bahrain, FYI). My friend identifies as a Bahraini arab first and foremost and does not deny her jewish heriage.

        Same with my other friend in the UAE who is of Palestinian descendant and her grandfather was a Jewish Palestinian (and he was subject to racism from his jewish european brothers, because god forbid there is such a thing as Palestinian Jew).

        FYI, the Bahraini ambassador to the US is a Jewish woman. I’m getting tired now of the ‘let’s make generalized assumptions about the evil arabs!’.

        Weirdly, both my friends cannot enter Israel or Palestine, despite the fact they are 100% Jews according to halachic law.

        Oh and here’s even more of kicker for you. One of my friend’s cousin is an American-Palestinian and her maternal grandmother is a Jewish american woman. And she was subject to the VIP interrogation treatment in Ben Gurion airport. Because you know, she has that ‘evil arab blood’ in her.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          There are 36 Jews in Bahrain according to Wikipedia. This is down from 500+ in the 1940s. There is one family that appears to be personal friends of King Hamid. This is certainly better than most of the other Arab countries where the decline has been even more dramatic, but it isn’t exactly proof of wide-scale tolerance in the Arab world.

          Your Bahraini Jewish friend that lives in Lebanon better be loudly Bahraini Arab first, otherwise if she got kidnapped most people would just accept it as a normal thing that should happen to a Jew. She can most certainly move to Israel so I have no idea where the idea that she can’t enter Israel comes from. And your other friend, the one with the ‘Jewish Palestinian’ grandfather, that one is just precious. He converted out of Judaism to marry a non-Jew. It wasn’t just the ‘European Jews’ that ‘discriminated’ against him. His own parents probably sat shiva for him. And his descendants are exactly 0% Jewish according to halachic law.

          Yes, let’s make a generalized assumption about the treatment of Jews in Arab countries. There was a million and now there are a few thousand. This is from across the entire Arab world. Wouldn’t it be not just easy, but also legitimate to generalize that Jews were treated like crap in the Arab world which caused them to leave and note that not all of them went to Israel, but pretty much all of them left the Arab world.

          Reply to Comment
          • Leen

            It’s not my friend who lives there, it’s her mother. My friend does not identify with any religion, but she has said she’s been raised with both Jewish and Islamic religion. Her mother on the other hand does not hide her religion or her faith.

            She cannot enter as a Bahraini, which is what her nationality is. Her religion is nothing.

            He converted to marry a non-Jew? How do you know? Do you know my friend? Do you know her family history? You obviously don’t, so why are you making generalization?
            But a Jewish Palestinian is again not a strange concept (see Juliano Mer-Khamis). I have also miraculously met a Palestinian refugee, who was Jewish. Yes I was pretty effing surprised but apparently, they do exist too.

            No because you are adhering to the classic orientalist strucutre which is all arabs are the same. THe Jewish experience in the Arab world is NOT the same. YOu have countries such as Iraq that led anti-semitic campaigns against the Jews, then you have Egypt which was political, then at the end of the scale, you have Bahrain, Morocco and Tunisia, where Jews have high position in politics (example, Bahrain, personal advisor to the King in Morocco, etc). It is as if saying the Jews in the Western world had a uniform experience in anti-semitism, in fact they did not. In Germany there was a holocaust, in britain there was some anti-semitism, in Albania, the Muslim families hid them from the Nazis and in the US they were left alone and in fact prosper as members of society.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            Leen, your Bahraini friend can move to Israel even having no religion by demonstrating that her mother is Jewish. She can also get an A1 temporary resident visa and I am sure if she showed up at an Israeli consulate in a European country they would find a way for her to be able to visit Israel with the Bahrainis never finding out. So, let’s just say for the record that your argument that she “can’t enter Israel” is false.

            It isn’t a secret that in Muslim societies a non-Muslim has to convert to marry a Muslim woman (but not vice-versa). If your friend is a ‘Palestinian descendant’ living in the UAE then the odds of her ‘Jewish Palestinian’ grandfather having converted are pretty damn high. But this is before the pretty obvious point that I made previously that if her grandfather was Jewish then she is halachically exactly 0% Jewish.

            This Palestinian Jewish refugee of yours is fascinating. How exactly does that happen? I can theoretically imagine this happening but that guy would have to be the dumbest SOB on the planet for the sequence of events in my head to play out.

            I am indeed generalizing. At the same time my generalization is backed up by the overwhelming displacement of the vast proportion of Jews from Arab countries. For example to continue on the topic of generalization, I have no problem saying that the Jews in Western World until Napoleon showed up did have a close to uniform experience of persecution. Back to the case at hand, Jews were forced out of nearly every Arab country by persecution – both legal and violent – with their property nationalized and them leaving with just the clothes on their backs. If you want to use the small number (less than 10,000 combined) that remains in Bahrain, Morocco and Tunisia as examples of tolerance that is fine but you are still going to have to explain why the other 99% (1 million) left and why the trend is so incredibly uniform across the Arab world. If you want to argue that there is a scale then fine the treatment of Jews in the Arab world ranged from unpleasant to genocidal but arguing that they were well treated on the basis of token examples is hardly convincing.

            Reply to Comment
          • Leen

            She cannot because you are talking about immigration, which she has no desire to immigrate, but simply to visit.

            Again, you are assuming that the Jewish Palestinian married a Muslim. He did not by the way. Which is why I keep saying do not assume things that you do not know about.

            From what I understood, his nationalism as a Palestinian far outweighed his Jewishness. His family had no desire to live in a state under foreign zionists.

            I noticed that you completely ignored my friend’s cousin who is an American citizen with Jewish ancestors and was given the full VIP interrogation treatment for the simple reason she is also half Palestinian.

            But that’s the point, isn’t it? You are still generalizing, the experience is not uniform, neither is it in Europe. The Jewish population has overwhelmingly fallen in Europe even in countries that did not have persecution against Jews ever since the Holocaust, yet they prosper in the US. At this point the only two countries with the most Jewish are the US and Israel.

            Actually, I just checked, it looks like the population of Jews everywhere (except the US and Israel) is falling. So I would wager that is not an entirely new phenomena and definitely not restricted to the Middle East.

            Reply to Comment
      • Noevil9

        To be taken seriously, we should be as honest as possible to the true information we have. If not ,we should be careful as not to discredit ourselves by our postings. Are you aware Mr. rsgengland, that Jews lived among Arabs and Muslims for centuries in a moderate conditions, if not well? Are you aware, that it’s a legitimate and natural reaction when a group of people act in an aggressive colonialist ways toward some of the people whom you might consider as your people,nation or at least fall in favor to your liking or graces, that you naturally would be angry and might take action to express your dismay against those who are committing a crime, or maybe dispossessing your people out of their homes and land ? from the form , of how you are presenting yourself here, I would say, you ought to be not able to dispute either one of those proposed questions in less than affirmative. Then, If that is the case, how do you think we should regard a person like you,and the opinion he is presenting in your post ? You be the judge. This is a good site for many honest people who seem to want to reach an understanding of this conflict and the points of views in the other side. Please try to keep that way. Thank you.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Lauren

      Thanks for this pertinent and too-true-to-life article. I continue to be saddened by this country’s blatant racism. I only hope that my work, as an educator, helps instill humanistic values in my pupils, Jewish and Arab, which will lead them to be accepting of others, regardless of race, religion or creed.

      Reply to Comment
    3. foresomenteneikona

      This article illustrates well Israel’s ritual humiliation of its Palestinian citizens, which is only one of many things that contradicts its claims to offer equal rights to them.
      However, I had a hard time with Abdel Fattah’s denial of the humanity of his interrogators. That’s arrogant and unnecessary. For all Abdel Fattah knew, that particular guard may have just been having a bad day. And even if he was a racist, he is still a human being with the capacity to change.

      Reply to Comment
    4. M.Bu

      a bit of a cheeky move on the authors part, claiming the fact the guard doesn’t speak arabic proves he hates arabs, then when he claims he does speak arabic you use it to back up your argument that he must hate arabs.
      While he may have learned it “to know what the enemy are saying”, the way you present it, he couldn’t have learned arabic for any other reason.

      you spoke for him..

      Reply to Comment
    5. Jason Stone

      🙁 what a complete lack of comprise and mutual feeling is displayed here by BOTH parties (even more so by the WRITER in my opinion !)…the Border Guard was “not a human being?”!!!!??? :O

      Reply to Comment
    6. BK

      You are self righteous, and clearly don’t understand European Jews are JEWS first and foremost, and do not belong in Poland, Russia, etc. We are JEWS, and that means we are indigenous to the land. And, for the last 1000 years, you too.

      Reply to Comment
      • Palestinian

        Judaism is a religion , you are European and you dont belong to the Middle East.Its hard for you to give up your beliefs ,because your Jewishness is the only identity you were allowed to have,but facts are facts.Your fabricated national identity has caused catastrophes to others and problems to you.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          Yes Rabbi Palestinian, please tell us about Judaism and Jewishness. Clearly you must be an authority.

          Reply to Comment
          • Noevil9

            Yes, The Palestinian is an expert in Jewishness and Judaism. If you want to know the true character of someone, then you ask someone who is under his control or subjected to his treatment , he or she will tell you the pure essence of the character of that person. The Jews/Israelis(some/majority) have been persecuting and oppressing the Palestinians for the last 65 years. He ought to know what Jewishness are made of, much more than you could ever be able to be as fair in your judgment. As your bias will discredit your integrity to be just and fair. How do I know? After reading few examples of your responses here and the length you go to prove your biased points as legitimate honest facts, you leave no doubt of what you are made of.

            Reply to Comment
    7. M.Bu, above has a point: “to not speak Arabic is racist, to speak Arabic is racist” is a rather confining position.

      “The implication of his comparison was that we are not the indigenuous people of Palestine, and that Israel is doing us a favor by “allowing” us to express our opinions and vote.” : Under what I consider to be the ascendant doctrine of Knesset Supremacy, there is a sense in which Arab Israelis are not protected in their citizenship as are Jewish ones. You are never going to remove the Israeli constituion in toto, but the Declaration of Independence can act as a protection of rights and transition. Free ingress of Jews into Israel, however, will always stay. In fact, I think one can argue that the “Jewish character” of the State is limited solely to free ingress as insured by the Declaration; all other characteristics of the State are a product of politics, social change, and jurispurdence.

      Reply to Comment
    8. The Trespasser

      There is no such thing as “Palestinian Israeli”.

      Both these terms represent nationalities, not ethnicities, and thus are mutually exclusive.

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    9. The Trespasser

      >…and like thousands of Palestinian Jews who were here all the time and lived peacefully with other Palestinians.

      That’s a nice phat lie.

      Unless, of course, one is considering official 3rd class citizen status as a “peaceful living”

      Reply to Comment
    10. sh

      The exchange between interrogated and interrogator shows how we have each other’s arguments down pat.

      Leen, I enjoyed your comments. If all who fit in neither slot shouted a bit louder, by now airless exchanges might become leavened enough to take off in new directions.

      Lastly, I’d dispute the contention that every Israeli interested in learning Arabic does so because they aspire to work for the country’s security services. Some idiots who don’t qualify to rifle through people’s belongings at airports surely just love languages (and particularly Arabic), because of its beauty, its evident proximity to Hebrew, older family members speak it or, heck, even because all neighbouring countries – plus many if not most of Israel’s inhabitants – speak it in some measure. In the hearts of some young people the innocent hope may still lurk that one day, when peace is achieved, they’ll be able to visit and/or offer hospitality to inhabitants of those neighbouring countries.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Charles-Jerusalem

      To the author of the article,
      It seems that you had a nice conversation with the Shin Bet guys.
      Even if you guys traded charif words. The guys let you express your political feelings without any consequences for you. You went through the border like a bride. This is democraty to me.
      Once, I showed to an Egyptian border policeman what I was thinking of him for mistreating my back-pack, he wanted to cut my head while I hadn’t said a word.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Pseudonymous

      The author forgot to mention, that the treatment he received has noting to do with racism, but to the fact that he belong to the party led by convicted spy.
      In any normal country his party would be outlawed immediately.

      “In 2007, Bishara fled Israel and resigned from the Knesset after being questioned by police on suspicion of aiding and passing information to the enemy during wartime, contacts with a foreign agent, and receiving large sums of money transferred from abroad.”


      Reply to Comment
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